The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has mandated that all TVs manufactured and sold in the United States after December 20, 2016, be made accessible to the sight-impaired. Some companies have already begun to include certain accessibility features in their newest models. In the October 2013 issue of AccessWorld, J.J. Meddaugh took a look at the Panasonic line of Talking Televisions. Samsung has now introduced its first accessible TV lineup, and in this article I will describe and evaluate the built-in Voice Guide of the Samsung UN50H6400, a 50-inch, 3-D, Smart TV.
Here are the specifications for the model I tested, which retails for $1,399.99, but which I found for $997.99 at Amazon.com: the unit itself is 44.4 inches wide by 25.7 inches tall by 2.5 inches thick, and three inches taller, 28.7 inches, when mounted on the included metal stand. Included external connectors: 4 HDMI, 3 USB, 1 component input, and 1 composite input. The 50-inch, 16:9 LED screen offers full HD, with 1080p at 120HZ; the 3-D audio is powered by DTS Premium Sound 5.1.
The TV includes two pairs of 3-D glasses, an infrared extender cable, and a Smart Remote. A second, larger remote is available, and as I will describe later, I found it preferable to use that remote to quickly change channels and to enter other information, so if you are planning to purchase this set, you might want to ask if both remotes are included.
Unfortunately, there is no way to perform the initial setup without sighted help. You must enter information such as your language preference, Wi-Fi settings and password, and a license agreement, before you can enable the Voice Guide through the Menu option, found at the very bottom of the Smart Remote. Select option 6, System. The first submenu is Accessibility, which includes the following settings:
- Voice Guide: Toggle the voice guide on/off and to set the voice speed, volume, and pitch. You can also choose between two description levels: detailed, which is the default, and basic, for more experienced users of the voice guide who no longer need context-sensitive hints.
- Video Description: Toggle video description on/off. This setting only works if the program you are watching includes video description.
- Caption: Toggle closed captioning on/off. This option is disabled when the voice guide is active.
- Menu Transparency: Increase or decrease the transparency level of onscreen menus and controls.
- High Contrast: Increase the contrast for onscreen menus and controls.
- Enlarge: Enlarge the font size of onscreen menus and controls.
The voice guide text-to-speech was clear and understandable for the most part. It seems to be the same voice engine many feature phone manufacturers use for their voice guides. There are no screen review hotkeys, however. You cannot move character by character through an unfamiliar word, or reread a menu screen without moving the cursor up and then back down.
The Samsung offers a Quick Accessibility Button, labeled "CC" on the Smart remote. Pressing this button calls up a command list you can use to rapidly turn on and off the various accessibility features, including the voice guide. This feature would be extremely handy in a household of both accessibility and non-accessibility users. Unfortunately, this menu option seems to contain a serious bug. I could toggle the Voice Guide off with no problems, but I could not successfully toggle it back on again. The menu repeated "Voice Guide off," despite many attempts using each of the two remotes.
I was hoping I could just use the Menu button and accomplish these steps by memory, cursoring down five times to System, then pressing Select on the Accessibility option, and then pressing Select twice more to turn the Voice Guide on. Doing so was not possible, because the Samsung remote has two features that get in the way. First, when you use a remote, a dot appears on the screen, and you can move the dot by moving the remote without pressing any buttons. Second it is impossible to press the down arrow key repeatedly without moving the remote, so I was unable to cursor down a menu and press Select successfully with the Voice Guide turned off.
One last problem I had getting the Samsung set up was due to the fact that my cable company recently began encrypting its signal. I could not simply connect the coax cable to the jack on the rear of the set. I needed to use a set-top box to control things. Happily, this can be done using the included infrared extender cable. The process is explained on pages 34 and 35 of the manual section entitled, "Controlling External Devices with the TV Remote Using the Universal Remote." An accessible version is available. This is done in the Settings/Universal Remote menu, where you have to enter your zip code, select your cable or satellite service, and then confirm the channels. My cable service tech performed this task for the first time, but somewhere along the way I lost the universal remote settings and I needed sighted help to reset the remote, because the channel scan menu does not currently voice.
The Samsung support desk (800-SAMSUNG) can also log in to your Internet-connected TV remotely to perform various setup and maintenance chores. Allowing a service rep to log into your TV requires you to read out an eight-digit PIN, and currently the Support submenu does not speak. However I was pleasantly surprised to learn from a service rep that if you press Select on the Support option, then press and hold the remote's "SmartHub" key for five seconds, the eight-digit PIN will begin voicing in four-digit phrases, which will repeat until the tech has successfully logged in. Unfortunately, there is no way to access this useful feature until after your TV has been set up.
When you first turn on the UN50H6400 with the Voice Guide enabled you are alerted which source is currently active. For me this was HDMI 1 Brighthouse, which is the port the Brighthouse tech used to connect my set-top box. You can change this input port by pressing the Source button, which is located to the far right of the first row of three buttons on the Smart Remote. Use the left and right arrows to make your choice, then press the Select button to confirm.
There are tactile plus/minus buttons on the left and up/down arrows on the right side of the Smart Remote keypad, which change the volume and channel number respectively. The set speaks the new volume level, and, usually, the channel number and program info.
You can also change the channel by entering the number of the channel on the remote. Here is where I had a slight problem with the Smart Remote. The Smart Remote does not include a number pad. Instead, you have to press the Keypad button, then cursor to the desired number and press the Return key, which is located below and to the left of the cursor keys. Unfortunately, there is no voice feedback when you enter a number, and you cannot cursor back to confirm that you entered the correct number. For this reason, I found it much easier to use the full-size remote, which does include a keypad, to enter channel numbers.
The Program Guide
Here is one area where Samsung seems to have surpassed other TVs with built-in speech. If your TV is connected to the Internet via either a wireless or hardwire connection, you can press the Guide button and an accessible program guide will appear. Cursor up and down to move through the channels, left and right to move back and forth among the listings playing currently and for the next 24 hours. You can also press the Channel Up and Channel Down buttons to move a full screen at a time, which makes getting to the higher channels much easier. The Program Guide lists the program schedule for the next 24 hours, but you can also press the Fast Forward and Rewind Smart Remote keys to advance to the next or previous day's listings.
Press Select on any program currently playing and the set will switch to that channel. The guide reloads each time you invoke it, and it can take up to 15 seconds to load completely. On occasion I received a "Service not currently available" message, but almost always a second press summoned the information successfully. Another problem I encountered was if I tried cursoring up or down too rapidly through the channels or times. Most often the speech would stop until the Voice Guide had a chance to catch up. Other times it would crash and I would have to restart the guide.
I tested the TV with both a digital cable connection and an over-the-air digital antenna. Like the cable setup, the over-the-air setup menus also did not voice. But by the time I was ready to test a digital antenna signal I had learned how to enable a remote management session, and I requested the technician to scan the channels, which he did.
Pressing the Guide button when in over-the-air mode also called up a channel and program guide, with channel names or call letters and program names/times, if available, which most were.
Using the Mode button, it was easy to switch back and forth between my cable provider and over-the-air antenna signal.
Pressing the Info button at the bottom right of the Smart Remote gives you the program name and other information for the show you are currently watching. This worked fine when I was watching over-the-air channels via a digital antenna, but with cable, this button toggled back and forth between my last two viewed channels. My guess is that Samsung pulls the various remote codes from some database, and that my local cable company's listing is inaccurate.
Whatever the reason, when watching over the air, pressing the Channel Up or Channel Down button voiced the new channel number and program name. Using my cable box, however, this info failed to voice.
If you have a TiVo or DVR connected to the TV, the guide offers the ability to set a recording. I was unable to test this unit with a DVR, so I do not know if this menu speaks or not. However, DVR menus, including playback, would come from the device itself, and at least currently there are no cable company DVRs that include a voice guide.
The Quick Accessibility menu also allows you to enable or disable descriptive video service (DVS) when the TV program includes it. I was able to access this option easily on broadcast TV, but doing so on my cable input incurred insurmountable challenges. When it did not work, a supervisor at my cable company suspected it was because I was using a cable decryption box instead of a full cable box. He explained that, though the decryption box did offer a Spanish language button, it did not offer full access to the Secondary Audio Programming (SAP) service, which is how a descriptive video soundtrack is distributed. He sent out a full cable box, which the technician could not get to work, either. After four visits from technicians I suggested that they test video description on one of their office sets. They could not get it working there, either. Support requests have been sent up the chain, but I suspect that if I were to hold this review until the service is properly configured the information would no longer be relevant.
About two-thirds of the UN50H6400 menu options stated "Voice Guide is not available for this function." The set also offers voice commands, but this feature is disabled when Voice Guide is being used. Additionally, the set offers a Search button to help find content, which does not currently work with the Voice Guide.
Another heavily promoted feature of this set is the SmartHub, an interface that allows you to browse the Web, watch Netflix, YouTube, and other third-party sources, and install and run apps from the Samsung App Store. These features are also not currently accessible using the Voice Guide. I was told by a company representative that they hope to have the entire menu tree and the SmartHub working with speech within the year.
Perhaps the most serious current limitation of the Samsung Voice Guide is in trying to get help. For this review I believe I spent a total of at least 10 hours on the phone with representatives from Samsung's tech support htline, most of it trying to convince the tech reps that the Voice Guide did in fact exist, that I did not want help with Voice Input, and that there was difference between those features. As mentioned previously, I did find one representative with a good understanding of the Voice Guide, and together we explored the interface and tried to troubleshoot the difficulties I was having, such as enabling video description.
Samsung needs to familiarize its support staff with the Voice Guide, at least to the point where they know what it is and can forward a customer who is experiencing problems to a higher level tecnician with a more thorough understanding.
The first two digits in the model number UN50H6400 denote the screen size in inches. The final four digits denote the product number. Currently, the Voice Guide comes built-in in all Samsung sets with a model number of 6400 or greater, no matter what the screen size.
Software updates can be installed automatically by enabling the auto-update option in the Support menu, or by downloading updates to a USB thumb drive and installing them manually. Unfortunately, these menus do not voice currently, though Samsung reports they will be accessible via Voice Guide later this year. For now, I would definitely ask a support rep to enable auto-update during a remote access session.
Samsung has taken a solid, incremental step forward in providing an accessible TV viewing experience to the sight-impaired community. I especially enjoyed the accessible program guide, and the easy access to toggle on and off video description. Since I only had the one sample, I don't know if my problems with the Voice Guide quick toggle off/on was a software bug, operator error, or some combination of the two, but I am hopeful this problem will be fixed with a forthcoming software update.
For now, at least, Samsung seems to be focusing its efforts on enabling the enjoyment of basic TV functions, browsing for a program and tuning it in, easily accessing video description and the accessibility on/off toggle. Most of the setup and "Smart TV" capabilities are not yet accessible with voice, but Samsung has included easy access to remote management, so once you obtain sighted assistance to get through the initial setup, you can get help if and when you need it.
I'm currently not in the market for a new TV. My Sony widescreen HD likely has many more years of service, and I have various smartphone apps, including one from my cable provider, that allow me to browse and search a program guide. Other set manufacturers are working to meet the new FCC requirements for voice accessibility, and I look forward to evaluating their offerings, as well as future updates to Samsung's Voice Guide. If my Sony were to die tomorrow, however, I would definitely put Samsung Smart TVs on my watch list.
Product: Samsung UN50H6400 Television
Price: $1,699 (suggested retail)
Available from Samsung and other retailers